Saturday, June 09, 2007 - The online division of The Sacramento Bee

Tower founder puts new spin on record store

Russ Solomon is opening R5 Records and Video at his old Tower store on Broadway.Russ Solomon plans a "soft" opening of R5 Records and Video as soon as next weekend. Many things will look familiar to longtime Tower Records customers, including the store staff. Solomon plans to carry 40,000 titles, including 5,000 classical titles. The store will also carry 15,000 DVDs.

By David Watts Barton - Bee Staff Writer
Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, June 9, 2007

The bright-yellow facade and newly painted red trellises around the building leave no doubt what is happening at the corner of 16th Street and Broadway in Land Park.

Tower is back.

Well, not "Tower" per se, though its familiar color scheme now dominates the corner where Tower Records once stood. Instead, it's R5 Records and Video, which will open sometime this month. But the man behind the store remains the same.

Russ Solomon is back.

When Solomon's Tower Records declared bankruptcy and finally died in December after a slow, ugly decline, most figured the 81-year-old Solomon would take a well-deserved retirement.

So, it comes as a surprise -- to those who don't know him well -- that just six months after his industry-changing record store chain closed, Solomon is opening a new record store. He is still receiving product, but the store is nearly ready, and he's looking at a "soft" opening as soon as next weekend.

Solomon is starting R5 Records and Video halfway through a year in which compact disc sales are down 20 percent, and the word on everyone's lips is "digital." The conventional wisdom says downloads and iPods, not CDs, are the future.

Which prompts a question: With all due respect, has it occurred to Solomon that he might appear to be a Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, unable to accept the new realities?

Or, less poetically: Crazy?

"I am crazy," Solomon says. "I guess it's something in the blood. It comes from an overdose of shellac years ago."

That Solomon jokes about shellac -- the material records were made of when he first started selling them, 66 years ago -- tells a truth: from 78s and LPs to CDs and digital downloads, from mono to 5.1 surround sound, he's seen it all. And he isn't intimidated. He is, in fact, intrigued.

He's also a proud man. Though time has taken its toll -- he's heavier, moves a bit slower, and what little hair he has left is completely white -- he speaks with the enthusiasm of a man with something to prove.

"The real story is that you hate to go down a loser," he says bluntly.

'There's life left' in business

In a series of conversations on the phone, at his art-filled home in Arden Oaks, and in the Broadway store, Solomon argues that he can reinstate his "winner" status. More than that, he thinks that the record industry -- and perhaps a chain of R5 Records -- will be selling CDs long after he's gone.

"I believe that there's life left (in the business)," he says. "There are things that need to be tried. And since I was preaching against a wall the last two years that what Tower was doing and what the industry was doing was misdirected and wrong, I owe it to myself and to the business to do it my way."

Solomon's way, as he puts it, "is getting back to the fundamentals. Our focus has to be on people who love music, giving them great variety at great prices."

The new store's name was cobbled together by Solomon and Patti Drosins, his longtime companion and partner in the store, and was determined by what few Web site names were available. "Tower Records" wasn't an option: it is now owned by Caiman Inc., an online retailer that continues to run the Web site.

But according to Solomon, the new store will give anyone familiar with Tower Records flashbacks: despite the name change, R5 Records looks a lot like Tower in its heyday. In fact, the new logo was designed by Sacramentan Mick Michelson, now 89, who designed the original logo in the early '60s.

Walking into the virtually empty store on Broadway, Solomon is greeted by other familiar faces: Store manager Paul Brown, who worked for Tower for 25 years, Dale Glover (28 years) and Phil Minas (33 years). Even the younger of Solomon's nine R5 employees -- some in their mid-20s -- have worked at Tower for years.

"I give all the credit to the employees," says Solomon. "Local management, and the enthusiasm and knowledge of the employees -- that makes the difference and that's what you don't get in the big boxes. They know the music."

Solomon won't say how much money he's investing, but off-the-cuff, off-the-record estimates by those who know the business run in the three-quarter- to 1 million-dollar range.

Room for record stores

There's great interest in R5 Records, in Sacramento and beyond. Rob Fauble competed against Tower since he started his store, The Beat, 25 years ago. He says his business at 17th and J streets is up 25 percent since Tower Broadway closed. Yet, he's thrilled Solomon is opening a new store.

"We're having our best year ever," he says in one breath, and then adds, "Russ is my hero, so I think it's great he's opening. ... They took his company away from him, and he's been on the sidelines; now he has the opportunity to start with a clean slate."

Solomon is a heroic figure to many in the business. Jim Donio is president of NARM, the National Association of Recording Merchandisers.

"People couldn't see beyond the death knell," he says of Tower's demise. "But there is a future, and there are very smart people out there who know that the industry needs to change, and Russ is one of them."

The heart of the "change" Solomon is proposing is less high-tech than high-touch, though he concedes the importance of digital realities. But he says the dangers are overblown.

"They've been talking about digital online for 10 years, and it's still just 15 percent of the total of music sold," he says from his Los Angeles office. "People still want to go into a store and find a record; it's instant gratification.

"For many products, shopping online is good only if you know what you want," he reasons. "It's generally quicker to buy things in the store -- you can see so much when you're standing in front of a rack, you see hundreds of titles at once, whereas you only see 15 or 20 when you're online."

Antony Bruno edits the digital entertainment pages for Billboard. He is so much in the digital realm that he doesn't even recognize Solomon's name when asked about him. But he knows Tower.

"I'm the digital guy, right?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm the guy who says the CD is in its sunset years."

But even Bruno admits Solomon may do quite well.

"There's clearly room for good record stores," he says. "There will always be record stores that survive, because they know the area and the people and the music. That said, I wouldn't do it -- but that's because I don't know how."

Stock to rival Tower's

R5 Records will rival the old Tower Broadway in its stock. Inside its 6,000 square feet, Solomon plans to carry nearly 50,000 units, as many as 40,000 discrete titles, including some 5,000 classical titles. And, says Solomon, the special orders department will give a run for your money. The store will also carry 15,000 movies on DVD.

The stores won't be open until midnight every night, but they will be open seven days a week, 365 days a year, just as Tower was. The hours are planned to be 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, possibly until 11 p.m. or even midnight on Friday and Saturday.

Solomon is convinced that, as he says, "All we need to do is the things that made Tower successful."

And Tower was successful, he says, and not just in its heyday.

For the fiscal year that ended in June 2006, 76 of their 89 stores were profitable, not counting interest expense and most other corporate costs, according to a filing the company made in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last August.

Though the initial investment for R5 is coming out of Solomon's pocket, he is looking for investors to expand, eventually into a full record chain.

"I can't just stay with one store," he says. "I'm not a one-store operator."

He may be dreaming, but he's dreaming big. And as Ed Christman, retail columnist at Billboard says, "He's got the whole industry pulling for him."

After all, Christman adds, "Who else, at 81, is going to start a business? He still wants to make it happen."

Drosins, who's known Solomon for 25 years, and spent most of her professional life working at record labels in New York, says Solomon's not-so-secret strength is his passion.

"He's still as passionate as he ever was," she says, adding wryly, "a lot heavier and a little less hair, but just as much passion. ... He always looks at the positive, and looks to the future, and that's what keeps him young."

Move is a challenge

But why? Why not leave well enough alone? After all, Tower may have died, but while it lived, it changed the music business. These are laurels to be rested upon.

" 'Cause I don't know any better," Solomon jokes. "But OK, seriously, the business has really changed, and that presents a very interesting challenge. And the truth is, I really don't know how it's going to shake out. ...

"And that's exciting," he says. "I can't do a lot of the things that I used to be able to do: I can't water-ski, I can't climb a mountain. But this one ... this one I might be able to do."